Archives For Fulbright

New Year

April 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

Sri Lankan New Year is upon us. The stores are packed, buses are crowded, and businesses are shutting down for a long weekend.

The Tamil and Sinhalese New Years follow the vernal equinox, this year they will begin on April 14th. This year I am headed to Nuwara Eliya for New Year, apparently this is the place to be. For New Year there will be horse and car races, flower festivals, golf tournaments, and imported keg beer. All the Colomboites head up to Nuwara Eliya for the holiday.

According to LankaInfo.com, the schedule for New Years is:

“2013 NEW YEAR AUSPICIOUS TIMES IN SRI LANKA

  • Dawn of New Year (Nekath Udawa)

    Dawn of New Year is at 14th April 2013 at 01:29 AM

  • Punya Kalaya

    Punyakalaya is the time which starts 7hrs 05 minutes before the dawn of New Year and ends 7 hours 53 minutes after the dawn of New Year. So the puniya kala for Sri Lanka starts on  13th April at 07:05 p.m and ends at  14 th April at 07:53 a.m.  The first portion of the Punyakala  is allocated for religious ceremonies and the second part is for traditions like preparing Meals. Starting work, transactions etc.

  • Lighting of the hearth 
  • Preparing Meals “Aahara Piseema”
    April 14th at 04:06 a.m
    Auspicious direction is South
    Auspicious cloth Blue Colour
    Prepare a “Kiri Bath” from red rice mixed with Ghee and Jaggery (sharkara)  and sesame seeds (Tala) 
  • Starting Work, Transactions and Taking Meals “Aahara Anubhavaya, Weda Alleema and Ganudenu Kireema”
    April 13th at 10:28 p.m
    Auspicious direction South
    Auspicious cloth Light Blue Colour
  • Applying Oil “Hisa thel Gaama”
    April 15th at 06:41 a.m (Morning)
    Auspicious direction East
    Auspicious cloth White Colour
    Dimbul Leaves for the head and Ambul leaves for the feet
  • Going to work
    April 17th at 07:42 a.m (Morning)
    Auspicious direction South
    Auspicious cloth Light green Colour”

Costs of War

April 2, 2013 — 2 Comments

I’m continually surprised by the challenges of working in a post conflict area. Trinco, the town where I live and teach, was relatively unaffected by the war. By this I mean there were a few bombings in town, but they did not suffer from heavy fighting. Just a few kilometeres outside of the town there are areas that were really hard hit by fighting.

Over the weekend I had the privilege to travel to Mannar to celebrate Easter. On Saturday I went sea bathing with a friend and his older brothers. They are divers by trade, and collect sea cucumbers and conch shells.

Raj, the eldest brother, and I were sitting on the beach chatting. We were sipping on toddy and eating fish and crabs that we had cooked over a fire. His English is good, and he told me how he loves working outdoors. When the conversation came to my studies at university, sadness flashed across his eyes. Raj told me that he was supposed to go to uni for science, but due to the war those plans changed. He spoke of his life and how he enjoyed the simplicity of his trade.

Every year in Sri Lanka only 2% of students get admitted to university. Only the top students can study in the science or medical faculty. Raj seems genuinely happy with his life, but its hard to imagine how different his life would have been had he gone to uni. It is impossible to quantify the opportunity cost of war. How many future scientists, engineers, and doctors found it impossible to continue their studies?

Sterility

March 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

Travel should be challenging. You should be slapped in the face by culture (literally and physically). When traveling you should be surrounded by the locals, and you should eat at the restaurants where no one can speak your native tongue.

I know that this type of travel isn’t necessarily relaxing. I know that a lot of people (my parents included) want their vacation to be relaxing, because their jobs are stressful and they just need a break. I understand it, but I also reject it. Forgoing some comforts affords you a chance to really explore a new place, and a new culture. If you’re lucky you may even start to understand said culture.

Every time I see a tour bus driving around Sri Lanka, I cringe. Traveling around in a climate controlled bus really separates you from your environment. I hadn’t noticed this before, but after months of traveling by bus, tri-shaw, or cycle I had the opportunity to ride in a car last week. The auto was actually cold (I can’t remember the last time I felt that sensation), and it was virtually silent. The ride was devoid of conversation. As I drove through Trinco town I felt strange. I traveled down familiar roads, but they just seemed different. I felt closed off.

I never realized how a mode of transportation could affect my perception of a place. But in my travels I’ve met a number of really great people on mass transportation. The randomness of it makes it all the more interesting, as you never know who you will cross paths with. Being open is the key to really experiencing a place, and getting to know its people.

I recently read a quote from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and I think its applicable to travel:

“Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and you will ask yourself: ‘Is this what one used to dread?’”

Part of what I like about traveling is that I get to experience how others in the world live. If that means traveling on a cramped bus or eating with my hands, so be it. Fully immersing yourself in the lifestyle of others can be challenging, but it can also be transformative. It will contextualize your life.

Mid-Phase Review

March 20, 2013 — 2 Comments

On Friday, March 15th the Fulbright Commission held a mid-phase review. All of the English Teaching Assistants, Student Researchers, and Senior Scholars gathered together at the Fulbright Commission’s villa offices in Colombo for a day of presentations.

This year there are a total of 15 American Fulbrighters in Sri Lanka, and the conference provided a great opportunity for all the Fulbrighters to get together and see the progress we have made at this point.

Part of the reason why I enjoy the Fulbright so much is that it has brought together such a diverse group of people.

The five ETAs are spread across the island, and teach at institutions ranging from primary schools to universities. Our instituons are: University Of Sri Jayewardenepura (2 ETAs are placed here), the University of PeradeniyaSujatha Vidyalaya, and I split my time between the Vocational School at Sarvodaya and the Trinco Jesuit Academy.

The Student Researchers, with whom the ETAs have gotten very close, study a wide range of issues: the political economy of the plantations, contingency planning and the ownership of disaster management, gender based violence in Sinhala Cinema, the informal fishing sector in postwar Sri Lanka, the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, and alternative solid waste management systems.

The Senior Scholars are range from a professional dancer to senior lecturers, their research topics are: the architectural development of Sri Lanka’s forts, transformative dance in Sri Lanka, the climate services of Sri Lanka, and a social science study of village life.

This lecture was the first time that I met two of the Senior Scholars. It was great to get a sense of what they are studying and where their research has taken them thus far. Sri Lanka’s Fulbright program is unique in many ways, one such example is the close relationships between ETAs and Student Researchers. When I attended the ETA conference in Nepal I was surprised to find that many other ETAs did not know the Researchers in their countries.  In Sri Lanka, many ETAs live with Researchers. Since we are a smaller program, we get to have many opportunities for interaction. When all of the Fulbrighters converge there is little distinction between the groups.

Surviving

March 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

He intensely gazes at the sea, looking for signs of fish. Something catches his eye, and he points it out to his son. The young boy is learning his father’s trade. Slowly he wades into the water, stalking his prey. He readies his net and casts it onto the sea. There is tension in the air as he reels in his dragnet, unsure of whether his throw was successful. The reward for his effort is a tiny fish, the size of a deck of cards.

pictures to animation

Just feet from the Farah III I watch this Tamil fisherman work. One month before the climax of the Sri Lankan civil war he fled his village. He has no boat to fish in the deeper waters, as his was destroyed in the final weeks of the war. He has a net and that enables him to survive.

Paper

March 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

Paper, a film by 

  • Based off of the name of this film, what do you think it is about?
  • When in your life do you use paper?
  • Could you use less paper in your life than you currently do?
  • What would your life be like without paper?

My students at Trinco’s Jesuit Academy walked into class those questions written on the board, and I gave them ten minutes to answer before we moved on to watching this short documentary about a newspaper based in Jaffna.

In my four months of teaching, this was hands down my best class. After the video I was able to foster a discussion with my students that lasted nearly half an hour. They talked to me about their media consumption, and why they think its important to be informed. I was pleasantly surprised when they told me that they don’t trust the government run newspapers. I did not expect that kind of open criticism.

Sri Lanka’s education system is not geared towards creating independent thinkers. Notebooks are routinely referred to as copies, even by my students who speak little English. My students, who are among the best in Trinco, were initially frustrated by the questions written on the board. One girl complained, because there wasn’t one correct answer. This sort of open ended discussion is not common in Sri Lankan education. It was a tough class to start, but once the discussion got rolling I was thrilled with where it went.

After the class I reflected on what had transpired, and how a nation’s society reflects on its education system. Sri Lanka has an amazing medical system. Many Sri Lankan doctors leave the country to take positions at top hospitals in London, New York, and Toronto. Medical tourism is growing, as foreigners come to Sri Lanka for quality, affordable healthcare. The education facilities of Sri Lanka are doing something right, if they’re producing such top notch doctors, but medicine is just one factor that comprises a country’s society.

There is a divide in the world’s education systems.The two best education systems, Finland and South Korea, have taken radically different approaches. South Korea’s system rewards students who excel on exams, and focuses on rote memorization. Finland on the other hand doesn’t measure their students for the first six years of their formal education, which begins at 7. Finland’s holistic approach differs greatly from South Korea’s rigorous exam based education system.

While there is merit to both systems, I cannot emphasize how much I value creative education. I feel that my greatest educational achievements are a result of project based learning. My students may not have gotten as much out of the film as I wanted, but it was an encouraging start. I look forward to working with them over the next several months.

Coffee is something I’ve struggled to live without while living abroad. After a month of living off of instant coffee, a friend turned me on to Hansa Coffee.

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Hansa is a local coffee producer, and they’ve quickly turned into my favorite coffee brand. They have a small shop in Colombo, where you can purchase a variety of coffee drinks, snacks, and packaged coffee.

Hansa is unique because they roast their beans at the same altitude as they are grown, which is supposed to improve the taste and flavor of the bean. Sipping the Arabica blend – a favorite of mine – one picks up subtle notes of blueberry and chocolate. Needless to say, I’m glad to have made their coffee a part of my life.

Aside from producing coffee with a rich, fresh taste, Hansa makes coffee that you can feel good about drinking. Over the past few years I have grown more aware of the effects of my consumption on the rest of the world. My experiences in Kenya opened my eyes to the shocking working conditions and standards of living that tea and coffee workers often endure. Designations such as fair trade, organic, and rainforest alliance can help guide consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions, but there are flaws with these systems.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Hansa’s roasting operations in Nuwara Eliya. Lawrence, the founder and master roaster of Hansa, gave the Fulbrighters an open invitation to visit whenever we were in the area – I’m glad I obliged. Hansa might not be certified organic or fair trade (yet), but after visiting Lawrence I have no doubt that they are among the best coffee producers in the world.

The coffee used by Hansa is sourced from small growers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, in contrast to the original coffee industry that existed on the island under British colonial rule. During that time, Ceylon was the world’s largest exporter of coffee in 1870, producing  51 million kilograms of coffee annually. The coffee plantations were built in deforested lands, and their monoculture ultimately led to the entire industry being wiped out by 1890. Hansa educates small scale farmers on techniques such as shade-growing, composting, and organic farming.

Hansa is trying to revive the coffee industry without causing further deforestation. Shade grown coffee has a longer yield cycle, but this slower growth leads to a coffee with more complexity and taste. By teaching farmers the benefits of a polyculture farm, Hansa is reducing their dependence on fertilizers and pesticides.

Once the beans are harvested, they are brought to the factory, where they are sorted by hand. Beans with any defect – insect damage, mold, or cracks – are removed. As it turns out, half of the coffee in America is contaminated with mold. This mold produces mycotoxins (not only do mycotoxins make your coffee taste bitter, they cause cancer and brain disease). After the defective beans are sorted out, it is time for the roasting to begin.

Hansa's Roaster

Hansa’s Roaster

When I entered the roasting room I was struck by the intense heat and the overwhelming smell of fresh coffee. The coffee is roasted in small batches, and their special Indian-made roaster is a relic of a bygone era. Periodically the beans are checked for their progress in the roasting process. Watching the pale coffee beans transform into the familiar black ones was fascinating. When I started to hear a cracking noise, the beans were released from their primary chamber and emptied into the bottom hopper. The steaming beans continued to crack. The roaster was brought back to temperature before more beans were poured in.

Hansa is my coffee of choice for a multitude of reasons. It is delicious, but it is also made in a socially and environmentally thoughtful manner. Lawrence is a humanist, who cares deeply about the tenets of organic farming. His company is both a reflection of his beliefs and an attempt to make a better cup of coffee.

World View

March 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

One of the reasons I applied for a Fulbright was to expand my worldview. I had never been to the Indian subcontinent, and The Fulbright provided me a vehicle to get there. I find myself continually searching for new ways to expand my worldview, I think it’s really important in our connected world to have a sense of other cultures. So much so, that I get frustrated by those around me that don’t look outward.

Recently I took a trip to visit a Fulbrighter living in Matara, on the Southern shores of Sri Lanka. She’s the farthest Fulbrighter from me, it would take 12 hours on a bus (16 hours on a train) to reach Matara from Trinco.

When I was hanging out with her husband and some of his Sri Lankan friends, I was really surprised at how little to find they knew about the East. The asked me how I survived in Trinco, because it is so hot. They also thought that people were quite dangerous out East, “you know how Tamils can be”.

When I got back to Trinco, a friend was visibly concerned that I had been to Matara. She told me, “those southern folk are dangerous, the heat makes their blood boil”.

One thing I can say, after visiting most of the island, is that everywhere is hot (save for the hill country) and most people are really nice here.

It’s shocking how little interaction Sri Lankans have with each other. Many people here never leave their hometown, if they do its only to travel to the capital. If you only speak Sinhala, ten traveling to the North and East can be challenging. Likewise, if you only speak Tamil you won’t be able to communicate well in the South.

It frustrates me when people are unaware of the world they live in, be it Americans or Sri Lankans.

Communication

March 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

Email, text messages, and cell phones have radically changed our world. This has only become more apparent as I travel.

If I had been on a Fulbright even ten years ago, my level of communication with friends and family at home would be dramatically lower. I can call the US from my Sri Lankan cellphone for a few pennies a minute, over google voice the call is free. My mom can call me from skype for about 10 cents a minute. My family can follow me realtime via my blog, twitter, and facebook.

But in this age of instant communication, something has been lost. Last week I got a call from a fellow Fulbrighter, who told me there was a letter at the Fulbright Commission for me. All week I was excited, I hadn’t been expecting anything in the mail.

A pleasant surprise

My grandmother had sent me a letter, it was a really great surprise. Grandmom doesn’t email and doesn’t use the web, so I doubt she’ll read this blog. It was a really pleasant surprise to get a note from her in the mail. Surprisingly her letter took about a week to reach me. Its frustrating that my letters can take months to reach the States, but thats just how life goes.

The letter sits on my desk, and its a nice decoration for my sparse room.

I must remember to send more letters in the future, specifically to friends who are living abroad.

Openness

February 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

The Fulbright has challenged me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. When I opted to take the Fulbright over a lucrative banking career my family was surprised, to say the least. When asked to justify my reasoning I was often at a loss for words – I didn’t know how the Fulbright would benefit my future.

Sure, the Fulbright is a prestigious academic fellowship. The alumni network is amazing, and I’ve had the opportunity to learn about a whole new region of the world. When I started my grant, I couldn’t tell you exactly how it would impact or shape me.

One of my biggest challenges has been remaining open to the experiences and opportunities here in Sri Lanka. I get overwhelmed at times, and just want to close myself off.

I found myself in a situation like that two weeks ago. I had a particularly rough set of days, and just wanted to escape Sri Lanka for a little while. I had to travel to Colombo, and was all set for my overnight train ride. The battery on my laptop was fully charged, and I had queued up several episodes of The West Wing to get me through the train ride. I got into my cabin and my bunkmate was sitting on his bunk. I briefly acknowledged him as I dropped down my bags, and chatted on the phone with my brother (its amazing that a 15 minute phone call to the states cost me less than $2.00…).

The screech of the station master’s whistle signaled the start of my trip, and I bid my brother farewell. Getting into my cabin, I just wanted to climb into bed and shut myself off from the world. My traveling companion struck up a conversation with me, and we chatted for a few minutes. One thing led to another, and a few minutes turned into a few hours.

As it happened I was traveling with an optometrist, who worked for Vision Care. He had been in Trinco conducting free screenings and educational seminars to spot vision problems. I found out about several government schemes to provide free eye glasses to those who can’t afford them. At the end of our conversation, we arranged to conduct a session at my school in the middle of March. There are several students who need specs (as they’re called in Sri Lankan English), but don’t have the resources to afford them.

Had I closed myself off, and let the troubles of my week weigh me down, I would have missed this amazing opportunity. By turning off my iPod and taking out my headphones, I opened myself up to a conversation that turned out to be engaging and fulfilling.

Looking back on my days at University in NYC, I wonder how many engaging encounters I missed by closing myself off to the world. Openness brings opportunities.